Contribution by Mark Westphal.
Historically the wild turkey has been a resounding success story for wildlife and conservation agencies. As of the early 1900s, most of the wild turkeys had been wiped out of North America. During the Great Depression, the turkey population was estimated at 30,000 birds.
Hunters and conservation agencies jumped on the situation before the turkey totally disappeared. With proper game laws limiting female turkey harvest, and proper seasons protecting the birds while they are nesting, the birds have made a resounding comeback. As of today, there are an estimated 7 million birds now roaming North America.
As with many other animal species, the wild turkey thrives in habitats that offer a wide variety of components. Wild turkeys seem to do especially well in the Midwest where habitats are a mixture of agricultural land and oak-hardwood forest. Turkeys feed on insects as well as corn, wheat, oats and other grains found in farm fields; they typically live in the woods for safe cover and roosting habitat.
Brushy habitat is also needed for nesting and rearing young. When food is not available from agricultural lands, the birds also feed on the mast (nuts and berries) produced from the woodlands. Wild turkeys thrive in areas where these habitats are close together.
With knowledge of the habitat requirements of turkeys, managers can successfully provide opportunities to harvest these birds in a manner that supports a secure population, while providing a high quality hunt with a reasonably high success rate. The state of Minnesota seems to be accomplishing this goal with the lottery hunts it administers for managing wild turkey. Hunters apply for one of seven five-day blocks to hunt the bird around its mating season in the spring. In some areas the turkey population allows for an additional fall hunting season, when hen harvest is permitted.
According to the DNR, turkey hunters are finding success rates of greater than 30%. More hunting zones are being opened as birds are being released into new areas of the state. This trend seems to be happening in other states as well. Looking across the border from Minnesota into Wisconsin, seasons are now opening in the state in areas where turkeys were never thought to be able to survive, let alone prosper as they have. This indicates that the management that is taking place has been very successful.